Friday, February 22, 2013

"The Government wants to change the law so that all children have to go to school" - Consult deadline today!

It's not as dramatic as it seems, from the quote in the title. At least I hope not. The excerpt is from the children's version of a consultation about changing the Education Act in a part that relates to school attendance for travelling families (Section 444(6)) with a view to repealing it.

Nothing to do with Elective Home Education you might say, but the terminology and spirit of the documents is absolutely anti-home learning and pro-school. As any parent knows, children learn all the time, in all situations and often the most natural situation for a child's education is the most effective for that child. Education is not all paperwork, it's also computer work, craft work, industry, satisfying curiosity, finding questions and answers in a multitude of places.

We are all unique in our interests and learning styles, BUT we live under a government which has an economy to drive, and the education industry is very much a part of that. My fear, borne out by documents like this, is that the economy's needs risk over-riding whatever might be best for people including their freedom to decide what might be best for themselves.

My adult children have no qualifications and yet all do earn as much money as they want and need to earn. Instead of restricting their academic studies to those set out by someone else on a curriculum or syllabus, they have used their time instead to keep following their interests freely and hone their potentially commercial skills, which has enabled them to enter the workplace free of debt and contract, so they could partake on their own terms. I imagine this outcome is just as easily available to traveller families, if not moreso, and it is a option to be valued, not dismissed because it doesn't fit with wider international social and economic plans for us.

Section 444(6) of the Education Act 1996 says...

444 Offence: failure to secure regular attendance at school of registered pupil.

(6) If it is proved that the child has no fixed abode, subsection (4) shall not apply, but the parent shall be acquitted if he proves— (a) that he is engaged in a trade or business of such a nature as to require him to travel from place to place, (b) that the child has attended at a school as a registered pupil as regularly as the nature of that trade or business permits, and (c) if the child has attained the age of six, that he has made at least 200 attendances during the period of 12 months ending with the date on which the proceedings were instituted.

Some home educators I know are in touch with travelling families and have asked for their views on this. Their response has included concerns about the break up of families when men are travelling for work and children have to attend the same school consistently, and also about the lack of legitimate places for travellers to stay without being moved on for long enough to ensure the required school attendance.

In 2001 a Gypsy took the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights for preventing her from stationing caravans on her land, a breach of her right to private life. The judgement included the following legal requirement:

..the vulnerable position of Gypsies as a minority means that some special consideration should be given to their needs and their different lifestyle.

- and the proposal to enforce full school attendance would breach this special consideration legal requirement.

I have also read the adults' version of the consultation and the wording is nearly as bad as the children's one:

Evidence tells us that regular, consistent attendance at school is associated with good achievement. To ensure that each child has the opportunity to achieve their best the Government is determined to improve school attendance for all children. We know that significant absence from school reduces the opportunity for children to fulfil their potential.

- and I want to challenge this notion that achieving one's best and fulfilling one's potential always necessitates qualifications, compliance and even excessive affluence. In whose interests is it all, really? High attendance might produce better qualifications, but might its dogged pursuance be at the expense of an entrepreneurial, innovative - but essential - element of society?

Other home educators speak of traveller friends being effectively prevented from home educating by prejudiced official interventions in their family lives (however well-meaning these might be) and feeling forced to register their children at school purely to relieve some of this pressure, even when their preference is to home educate and they are perfectly well able to do so.

Is this consultation evidence of a further move to phase out Nomadic living in England as it has been in the Nordic countries and elsewhere? Are settled, housed communities really so threatened by the mere existence of travelling people? I am currently reading a book about, amongst other things, the early coexistence of both nomadic and early farming communities and the problems and benefits both might have experienced as a result - are we still grappling with the same kind of dynamics as our forebears from 3,000 years ago and more?

If we are not careful, we risk Elective Home Education becoming a preserve of the elite, of which only "green light families" can avail themselves. This would be a wrong turn, in my view. Instead, we should embrace freedom and differences, and continue to let Traveller families dip in and out of schools at will, trusting them as much as any other parent to cause [their children] to receive efficient full-time education suitable — (a) to their age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs they may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

As my response to the consultation, I will be emailing a shortened version of this to the government. After all, if they don't trust Traveller parents, who will be next?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mission creep warning! CME guidance consultation - closes this Friday 15 February 2013 at 5pm

CME (Children Missing Education) is central government's statutory guidance to local authorities on how to interpret section 436A of the Education Act. A new version has recently been drafted and this is open for public consultation requesting an email response before this Friday 15 February 2013 at 5pm.

This section of the law was allegedly not intended to 'catch' or check up on home educating families and the first version made this explicit:

[Clip = 66 seconds long]
["The two sets of guidance were originally conceived to do two different things. I was involved with discussions when the first draft of that was made, of the Children Missing Education guidance, and the civil servants who we were dealing with assured us that this was not something which was being designed to entrap home educators. They assured us that the whole point of that exercise - giving the statutory guidance on section 436A - was to find children who had completely slipped through the net who were not receiving any education at all. It was not designed to target home educators in any way. And the first version of it actually said explicitly that this guidance does not apply to children who are educated at home." - Jane Lowe, giving oral evidence to The Commons Education Select Committee's inquiry into EHE support on Wednesday 5 September 2012]

Later versions were to lose this statement in an ongoing process of mission creep, although I think they did keep the link to the all-important 2007 EHEGLA, thereby rendering their non-statutory status de facto statutory. This new draft appears to have lost that link, which I think is worrying and in need of our urgent response.

In my view it's important for home educators to regularly check the CME guidance and respond to consultations when it changes because the guidance is often misused by local authority officers in their approach to home educators, so we need its wording to be very clear and unambiguous, especially considering Ofsted's role in inspecting local authorities' compliance with it. (See Fiona's response for more on this.)

The new draft guidance seems blissfully short and simple compared to recent versions, but I think it contains many problems, as follows:

  1. From the Introduction - overview: "The purpose of the section 436A duty is to ensure that local authorities can identify and return to full-time education those children who are missing education (or those at risk of becoming CME)." I can find no reference in section 436A which speaks of "at risk of becoming" and think this should be removed to prevent further mission creep.
  2. "The duty relates to children of compulsory school age who are not on a school admission register and not receiving a suitable education otherwise than at school, for example, at home." There is no such thing as 'compulsory school age', only 'compulsory full-time education age' and the guidance should use the legally accurate term throughout, instead of the false one.
  3. "Issuing School Attendance Orders (SAOs) to parents who the local authority believes are not securing a suitable education for their child" is the end of a process at every step of which the best interest of the child should be prioritised. If the authority believes a parent is not securing a suitable education for their child, government guidelines advise informal enquiry first.
  4. This guidance should reference and link to the Elective Home Education Guidance for Local Authorities for instructions in their approach towards home educating families.
  5. "Safeguarding duties, for example, visiting a family if they have concerns about a child’s welfare and poor school attendance and, if appropriate, making an application to the family court." This sentence implies a proactive stance which I believe is an incorrect interpretation of the cited section 47 of the Children Act 1989. My concern is that any proactive conflation of Education with Welfare may lead to home educating families being automatically treated with suspicion when there are no indications that their children are at risk of being harmed or neglected and their privacy and wellbeing suffering unnecessary damage from any such suspicion.
  6. "Children at particular risk of missing education" This whole section needs to be removed in my opinion as it contains items of prejudice and refers to the issue of risk itself, which is not mentioned in the section 436A of the Education Act. I think it should be the purpose of this guidance to interpret the law as it stands, not to facilitate mission creep.
  7. "Families moving between local authority areas can sometimes lead to a child becoming ‘lost’ in the system and consequently missing education. Where a child has moved, local authorities should check with other authorities – either regionally or nationally – to ascertain where a child has moved to and ensure that they are attending education or being home educated." I can see nothing in section 436A of the Education Act which calls for families' movements to be tracked around the country in this unnecessary way. Section 7 of the Education Act already sets out parental responsibility for the full-time education of children and local authorities should only address evident current failings in this. Tracking movement of families would go beyond this legal requirement and infringe on civil liberties.
  8. "Local authorities should regularly raise awareness of their procedures with local schools, partners and agencies working with children and families, for example, GPs and other health professionals, police, emergency services, children’s homes, Youth Offending Teams." I would like to take this opportunity to express a warning about the unintended consequences which may arise from too much connection between issues of health, education and welfare. This is the increased, so-called 'service-resistance' of families seeking to preserve the peace and freedom required for their wellbeing.
  9. I think this guidance should somewhere restate the original intention that section 436A and associated guidance should not be used to check or monitor Elective Home Education, because Section 7 of the Education Act and the Elective Home Education Guidance for Local Authorities already adequately cover this area.

    Local authorities can make inquiries of such families only where it appears a child may not be in receipt of an efficient full-time education as set out in Section & and the EHEGLA Guidance. Further checking and monitoring of home educating families may be damaging to their wellbeing and their children's interest in learning. The wording "where it appears" bears no relation to the term parents who the local authority believes are not securing a suitable education for their child. The former having specific legal meaning and the latter being quite arbitrary and therefore open to misinterpretation.

    I would like this guidance to state that when a parent states the child is home educated, the Elective Home Education Guidance for Local Authorities should be followed. I do not think the proactive seeking out of such families for checking or monitoring purposes is an accurate interpretation of section 436A of the Education Act.

The above nine points will form the main part of my email response to the consultation.